As protests continue to flare across the country, President Donald Trump and his top aides cannot settle on the next steps the White House should take to ease tensions after the latest death of an African American man detained by a white police officer.
White House chief of staff Mark Meadows has been pushing for the president to deliver a formal address to the nation to emphasize his support for law and order and police officers, a familiar trope for the Republican Party and one that typically plays well with its base.
Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law, Jared Kushner, along with several other top aides, argued against such a move, fearing the tone could alienate key voters ahead of the November election, including African Americans whose support the administration has been trying to court. An address would also detract from the president’s message of trying to restart the economy as quickly as possible, allies said. The president’s last formal address — in mid-March from the Oval Office, dealing with the growing coronavirus crisis — was not viewed internally as a success, since the White House had to later clarify several points from the hastily written speech, which Trump appeared uncomfortable delivering.
This infighting over a potential speech signifies a much broader question facing the White House, according to interviews with a half-dozen senior administration officials and Republicans close to the administration: How can the president soothe and lead a nation at a moment when more than 100,000 Americans have died from the coronavirus, another 40 million are unemployed, and protests are raging through the U.S. after the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis last Monday?
Amid this swirl of crises, the Trump administration and its staffers have struggled to find the right tone and path to calm the country. The president keeps veering between expressing condolences for the death of Floyd, as he did in Florida at the SpaceX launch on Saturday, and then tweeting out far harsher rhetoric on protesters, looters or the Democratic leaders of the cities in which the protests have occurred. Trump made no public appearances on Sunday and did not leave the White House.
By Sunday morning, he appeared to have found a new target and scapegoat by pinning blame for the protests on Antifa for the protests, a loose collection of radical groups that define themselves by their opposition to fascism.
“Congratulations to our National Guard for the great job they did immediately upon arriving in Minneapolis, Minnesota, last night,” Trump tweeted. “The ANTIFA led anarchists, among others, were shut down quickly. Should have been done by Mayor on first night and there would have been no trouble!”
In addition to starting to cast protesters as lawless individuals or anarchists, the president and his staff have been mulling others ways to respond by hoping that federal law enforcement can possibly charge the four white former police officers involved in the killing of Floyd — they have all since been fired — or by bringing African-American leaders to the White House. One of the four former officers, Derek Chauvin, has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter.
Bashing Antifa is expected to be a familiar refrain this week from the Trump White House. Trump previewed this by tweeting on Sunday that he intended to designate Antifa a domestic terrorist organization, a move that critics say he lacks the legal authority to do since Antifa is not, in fact, an organization.
Aides still have not settled on the best course of action, as the president continues to hear advice from top staffers, Republicans close to the White House, political advisers and members of his reelection campaign. New polling out Sunday from The Washington Post and ABC News only added a sense of urgency, since it showed Trump trailing Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, by 10 percentage points nationally, whereas two months ago the same poll showed the two candidates just a few points apart.
Several White House aides and Trump allies have argued over the weekend against any type of Oval Office address in the coming days.
“The protests are not just connected to the death of George Floyd. They are connected to the overall frustration with the economic downturn and coronavirus,” said Jason Miller, a former senior communications adviser to Trump’s 2016 campaign. “There are no magical words of unity that can fix someone’s missing paycheck, or no magical words of unity on George Floyd.”
White House aides were very pleased by the president’s speech in Florida at the SpaceX launch, where he spent the first several minutes of his remarks talking about the death of Floyd. Aides thought it struck the perfect balance between condemning the death and supporting law enforcement, and were disappointed that the remarks, which started in the early evening on Saturday, did not receive more attention from Americans or the national news networks.
The president’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien, praised the Space X remarks during a Sunday morning TV appearance but declined to say whether Trump would give a formal address this week.
“Look, the president addresses the country almost every day,” O’Brien said. “He’s been very accessible to them. And I think he’s made it very clear in his initial Twitter responses to the terrible killing and death of Mr. Floyd and his common sense that he’s — he’s accessible to the country every day. So, whether he has an address from the Oval or he speaks to the press, he’s accessible and will continue to be accessible to the country and give his views on these events, which are — which are tragic for the country.”
The White House press office did not respond to requests for comment on Sunday.
Prominent African American supporters of the president said they had not heard from the White House about attending any upcoming events. Bruce LeVell, a member of Trump’s 2020 Advisory Council and an Atlanta business owner, praised Trump’s response, including his decision to ask the FBI and the Department of Justice to expedite its investigation into Floyd’s death.
“The president condemned that behavior right out of the gate,” LeVell said. “I say this respectfully, but previous administrations took more of a ‘wait-and-see’ approach, like ‘Let’s see what the local DA says.’ Trump said, ‘Let’s get Barr on this,’” referring to Attorney General William Barr.
The lone African American Republican senator, Tim Scott of South Carolina, took a more nuanced approach. In an interview on “Fox News Sunday,” Scott said some of the president’s tweets with phrases about responding to protesters with vicious police dogs, or how looting would lead to shooting, were not “constructive.”
“I spoke with the president yesterday morning, and he and I had a good conversation about what are the next steps,” Scott said. “I told him what I’m going to tell you, which is, ‘Mr. President, it helps us when you focus on the death, the unjustified, in my opinion, the criminal death of George Floyd. Those tweets are very helpful. It is helpful when you say what you said yesterday, which is that it’s important for us to recognize the benefit of nonviolent protests. It is helpful when you respond to my request to have the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Barr, have a commission and a conversation around race and justice in this nation. Mr. President, it is helpful when you lead with compassion.’ And the tweets that I saw yesterday were far better.”
The pressure on the White House to respond to the protests will only continue this week, as the nation looks to Washington for leadership. Friday will bring potentially more bad news, when the Department of Labor will unveil the latest national unemployment statistics.
Advisers have warned that the unemployment rate could rise from its current 14.7 percent to over 20 percent. Aides also plan to closely watch the coronavirus infection rates and how those play out as every state eases its standards on social distancing and the reopening of local businesses.
The post White House divided on Trump addressing racial tensions appeared first on Politico.